Chapter 4: State of the nation in 2008 / Aftermath of 9/11 / Hate crimes and racial ridicule


State of the Nation in 2008

I have wept as I have gone from city to city and seen how far people have wandered from God (Billy Graham).

Both overt and covert racism continued to plague America, despite significant gains in civil liberties for racial and ethnic minorities, in addition to the ramp-up of federal anti-discrimination laws. In 1989, a White male shot “105 rounds from the . . . [AK-47 assault rifle purchased over the counter], killing five Southeast Asian children because he blamed minorities for taking jobs away from White men” (Sue, 2005).

Rodney King, an African American male, was beaten with significant brutality in 1991 by police officers in Los Angeles (LA), California, after having been arrested for motor speeding and evading arrest (Cable News Network [CNN], 2001). Three officers were acquitted from charges of having used excessive force against King in a trial by jury, the composition of which was 83% White. This acquittal sparked off the LA race-related riots of 1992, deemed the worst in the history of the city. During the riots, arson, assaults, and murders ensued by both Whites and Blacks. These riots lasted six days and ended after mandated interventions by the California National Guard, the US Army, and the US Marines. After the verdict had been handed down, the mayor of LA declared that the assailants of Rodney King did not deserve to be police officers. In the meantime, President Bush reiterated that the judicial system had worked (Mydans, 1992).

In 1997, an immigrant from Haiti was strip-searched, raped, and sodomized with a toilet plunger by some New York City police officers in Brooklyn after having been arrested and handcuffed for disorderly conduct (Sue, 2005). In 1998, three White males belonging to a White supremacist prison gang lynched an African American male in Texas in a savage manner, then “chained [him] to a pickup truck and dragged [him] to death, while his body was practically shredded and torn apart” (ibid.). This incident is discussed in more detail in the chapter The First African American US President. In 2000, a 21-year-old White male member of the supremacist group World Church of the Creator shot without compunction several African Americans, Asian Americans, and Orthodox Jews in Illinois and Indiana. 

Aftermath of 9/11

This is what we will do. We will rebuild (Tom Daschle).

On September 11, 2001, four coordinated airline attacks, using the commercial airplanes of American Airlines and United Airlines, were carried out by 19 members of the Islamic terrorist group Al-Qaeda on (1) the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in New York City (two independent attacks); (2) the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US Department of Defense (DOD) in Arlington County, Virginia; and (3) Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania (Morgan, 2009; National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004). The latter attack was thought to have been intended for either Capitol Hill or the White House, but the passengers fought the hijackers on board and the plane ended up crashing near Shanksville.

These attacks all resulted in the death of almost 3,000 innocent civilians, with the exception of 343 firefighters, 72 law enforcement officers, 55 members of the US military, and the terrorists themselves. More than 6,000 other persons were injured and over 90 countries lost some of their citizens. The attacks had a significant negative effect on the economy of both Lower Manhattan and the global markets, with the American Stock Exchange, NASDAQ, and the New York Stock Exchange not re-opening for business until six days later.[1] The events of 9/11 are considered to be the worst terrorist attack in the history of the world and the deadliest to occur on American soil since the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush proclaimed the War on Terror and negative sentiment against Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Hindu Americans, and Muslim Americans peaked in the US, becoming almost comparable to that against Japanese Americans during WWII. People thought to look like Middle Easterners were targeted. Verbal harassment, hate crimes including arson, assaults, shootings, vandalism, death threats, and some killings; as well as workplace discrimination became common (CNN, 2001a; Council on American Islamic Relations [CAIR], 2005; New York City Commission on Human Rights, 2004; South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow, 2003; Thayil, 2001). However, 80% of these incidents took place in just 10 states.

Law enforcement searches and arrests based on the intersection of racial and religious profiling increased dramatically at the time. Anti-semitic sentiment resurfaced with great strength in many East Coast states and California. The fundamentalist ‘evangelical Christians’ Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson declared that the attacks had been “a punishment from God,” and blamed them on “abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians, and paganists” (CNN, 2001b; Marley, 2007). These declarations were condemned by President Bush.

Racial Profiling

It is not enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it is not enough to believe in it. One must work at it (Eleanor Roosevelt).

The phenomenon of ‘flying while Muslim’ was reported (CAIR, 2007) as the airport profiling counterpart of ‘driving[2] while Black,’ Brown, Indian, or Latino (American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], 2007a). Driving while colored is the illegal, albeit widespread, law enforcement practice of stopping and searching drivers suspected of minor traffic violations or contraband based on racial, ethnic, or nationality profiling, rather than factual suspicions. It exemplifies institutional racism. Law enforcement officials include both public and private officials (ACLU, 2005). Public officials include police officers; private officials include security guards.

To counteract this practice, President Bush issued the guidelines Regarding the use of race by Federal law enforcement agencies (United States Department of Justice, 2003), which condemned and banned racial profiling. Despite both the ban and the public condemnation of the practice by the President of the US (The White House, 2001), racial profiling continued being used with regularity in federal investigations and searches for illegal immigrants (SPLC, 2006b). Significant racial disparities also persisted in the application of the federal death penalty nationwide (ACLU, 2007b; Unnever & Cullen, 2007).

Resegregation Reappears

At the heart of racism is the religious assertion that God made a creative mistake when He brought some people into being (Friedrich Otto Hertz).

Resegregation in education. School resegregation on a de facto basis was re-instituted through the financial, structural, and systemic neglect of public schools in the US throughout urban areas (Kozol, 2005). The majority population of these public schools was composed of racial and ethnic minorities who were challenged in at least the financial dimension of their lives. Such neglect resulted in the allocation of unequal school resources to public schools in comparison with private schools, with this inequality reflecting structural inequities between the two types of schools. Unequal resources included differential teacher and teaching qualities, unequal academic resources, differential graduation rates, and disciplinary methods. Neglect was also reinforced through the distribution of federal vouchers for private school education, rather than public school improvement.

Student tracking was implemented through a differentially tiered system (Kozol, 1998) that emanated from the high stakes testing due to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (P. L. 107-110). This Act emphasized outcome-based education, while ignoring the educational issues that resulted from the underlying institutional, structural, and systemic disparities between schools.

Special education (SPED) classes tend to be heavily populated by racial and ethnic minorities. They are also considered by many educational and mental health professionals as “wastebasket classes” (B. Sarvet, personal communication, January 21, 2003). According to Meier, Stewart, and England (1989), SPED placements were part and parcel of the practice of second-generation discrimination against minority populations in the US, because African Americans were (1) three times more likely than their White counterparts to be placed in SPED classes; (2) less likely to be placed in advanced placement classes, and (3) twice as likely to be suspended. Jones (1997) identified this practice as characteristic of anti-racist, neo-liberal policies and programs, which support and reinforce the inequitable status quo at the manifest level of functioning, but maintain White privilege at the latent level of functioning.

Zero tolerance policies. Nationwide nondiscretionary zero tolerance policies were also implemented. These resulted in the differential arrests of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans in comparison to Whites, which increased in a significant manner both the school-to-prison pipeline (National Association of School Psychologists, 2001) and the highly minoritized prison-industrial complex (Justice Policy Institute [JPI], 1999, 2007).

Children from six years of age upward were arrested, tried, and incarcerated for charges that were before considered as natural-to-childhood behaviors or addressed at the local level by school principals (Smith, 2007). New prison admits ranged in the higher end of the 70th percentile for racial and ethnic minorities (JPI, 1999), with the incarceration rates of America being second just to those of Russia (JPI, 2000). Such overt and not-so-overt operations of the nation’s prison-industrial complex have been termed “the American gulag” (ibid.). In the meantime, Sue (2005) reported that:

“White males occupy 80% of tenured positions in higher education, 80% of the House of Representatives, 80% to 90% of the U. S. Senate; 92% of Forbes-400 executive CEO-level positions; 90% of public school superintendents, 99.9% of athletic team owners, and 100% of U.S. presidents.”

And this despite comprising less than 33% of the general population in America. Orfield (2006) declared that:

“The present moment . . . is probably the worst period for civil rights since the 1950s . . . the first period with a clearly hostile control of all three . . branches of the government for almost a century.”

Hurricane Katrina

Tell us about the South. What is it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all? (William Faulkner).

In 2005, the category three hurricane, Katrina, with at times category 4 winds, devastated Louisiana and parts of Alabama and Mississippi, in addition to other areas in the Gulf Coast. It was the costliest and one of the five deadliest natural disasters to occur in the history of America. High political turmoil resulted in the aftermath of the devastation and heavy accusations of longstanding systemic and institutional racism were hurled against the federal government by Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans at the time (Associated Press, 2006). These accusations were made due to the significant delays that had occurred at the federal, state, and local levels in response to the disaster, in addition to prior federal and state ‘benign neglect’ of the areas of concern in Louisiana; all of which resulted in great loss of life among the people of the greater New Orleans area.

Two days before the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush declared a state of emergency for selected areas of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi (The White House, 2005). The declaration was intended to coordinate and facilitate federal, state, and local disaster relief for people in the affected areas. When Katrina hit, it broke all 53 levee systems that had been built in a shoddy manner by the US Army Corps of Engineers, ostensibly to protect the metro area of the city of New Orleans. The 40 Arpent Canal levee also broke down.

The federal government had earlier made the decision to use shorter-than-normal steel pilings for the levees to save money (Robertson, 2015). Two-thirds of the deaths that ensued during the devastation caused by the hurricane were considered to be the direct result of the failure of the levees (Anderson et al., 2007). This intersection of the landfall of Katrina and the shoddy construction has been termed “the greatest natural and engineering disaster in the history of America” (Toups, 2016).

The cheap engineering work resulted in significant loss of life when Katrina made landfall. Corpses of more than 700 people were seen floating around for days out in the open in the flooded streets (Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs [OEMA], 2006). The corpses intermingled with the emerging sewage from broken public systems.

More than 1000 lives were lost in total, with people dying from the lack of availability of potable water and the presence of heat exhaustion (Toups, 2016). Thousands more lost their homes forever. Representing in a not-so-symbolic manner what Massey and Denton (1993) had called “the American apartheid,” the people living at the time in the metro area of New Orleans had been disproportionately racial and ethnic minorities, in particular those living in the Lower Ninth Ward section of the city (ACLU, 2007c).

After the hurricane hit, orders were given by state and local law enforcement officials in Louisiana for the people to evacuate New Orleans through the Crescent City Connection bridge into Gretna, a neighboring town. Many tourists and residents who were White fled through the bridge in their sports utility vehicles. The remaining residents – the majority, African Americans – who were attempting to flee the city a few hours later were held back at gunpoint by Gretna police officials and the bridge was sealed off (ibid.). Many Blacks sought shelter in the New Orleans Superdome, one of the assigned refuges of last resort, because they did not have either the cars or enough money to leave (Rosenberg-Javors, 2005). Supervised with great vigilance by the Louisiana National Guard, it was reported that those inside the Superdome were ordered to remain seated until curfew. It was also reported that they were provided with little-to-no food, water, medical care, or sanitary facilities (Niman, 2005). Two sections of the roof of the Superdome had been compromised.

Disaster plans and responses were not well coordinated between the federal, state, and local levels. This resulted in a dearth of adequate action that left thousands of residents stranded, hungry, dehydrated, and on the rooftops of their devastated homes for five days. Inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison were held in small chain-linked cages and prevented by force from attempting to exit, despite yelling for help in desperation as the prison was being flooded by waters that were rising with great rapidity. Some prisoners were shot in the back as they were screaming for assistance (ACLU, 2006).

Search and rescue operations were terminated in a premature manner, so that law enforcement officers could focus on enforcing zero tolerance policies on those African Americans who were looting the streets. In the meantime, in what can be regarded as adding insult to serious injury, Whites who were acting in a similar manner were considered to be “just looking for food” (Sommers, Apfelbaum, Dukes, Toosi, & Wang, 2006). Some officials of the Louisiana National Guard aimed their rifles at hungry Blacks searching for food, while US military personnel forced unwilling residents out of their houses at gunpoint, violating the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 (18 U.S. 1385). In a brazen manifestation of what some in mainstream America were truly feeling about the tragedy that was unfolding in New Orleans, a member of the House of Representatives of Louisiana declared without compunction: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did” (Harwood, 2005).

Both the race and racialized class, neglect, and abuse issues that came out into the open due to Hurricane Katrina remained unresolved. Reports of federal and state officials “preventing thousands of aid workers, boats, and truckloads of donated food and water to enter the region” (Niman, 2005) emerged in the aftermath of the hurricane – a perfect example of systematic institutional racism (Henkel, Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2006). Reports of the unauthorized euthanasia of some hospital patients were also made public (Curiel, 2006). The psychiatric hospital was not reopened and the main mental health court judge, Johnson, recommended that psychiatric residents be channeled instead toward the criminal justice system (ACLU, 2007) – a clear example of the Penrose effect.

The discriminatory issues that had been brought forth by Hurricane Katrina brought to mind the calls of both Hernnstein and Murray (1994) for the nationwide predominance of a cognitive elite and the earlier calls of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus[3] for the formulation of a racialized class:

“We should facilitate . . . the operations of nature in producing mortality . . . In our towns, we should make the streets narrower; crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the Plague . . . We should build our villages near stagnate pools and particularly encourage settlement in all marshy and unwholesome situations” (as cited in Jones, 1997).

The American generalized response to Hurricane Katrina was termed a “national disgrace” (National Medical Association, 2005). It was condemned at the international level by the human rights committee of the United Nations (ACLU, 2006).

 Hate Crimes and Racial Ridicule

 Violence will only increase the cycle of violence (Dalai Lama).

In 2006, three White male students hung nooses on a tree at Jena High School in Louisiana after an African American student wanted to sit under the tree (Gallagher, 2007), which had been considered throughout history as a Whites-only tree (Bean, 2007). Reacting to the noose intimidation that meant “Niggers, we’re going to kill you, we’re going to hang you ’til you die” (Bailey, 2007), six African American teenagers ambushed and assaulted a White teenager into unconsciousness (Gallagher, 2007).

The African Americans were charged with attempted second-degree murder and tried as adults before an all-White jury by a White prosecutor. Only one teenager was tried as a juvenile. A neo-Nazi group called for the families of the teenagers to be targeted and posted their home addresses on the internet. In the meantime, the White students just received temporary suspensions and social services (counseling), even though the US Attorney General had called their actions a hate crime. The differential punishment meted out to the involved students sparked “some of the largest civil rights protests in years” (Newman, 2007), because it brought back the inherent double standards of the Jim Crow laws. It was reported that White supremacist groups tripled after 2002 (SPLC, 2006c) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI; 2006) hate crime statistics had shown constancy of such crimes within the prior 10 years.

More noose crimes occurred across the nation (The Racism and Social Injustice Audit Committee, 2007a) in 2007, the worst occurring at Columbia University in New York City – one of the top graduate schools in the US (American Broadcasting Corporation [ABC] News, 2007). An African American female professor of counseling psychology and internationally renowned scholar on racism (Constantine & Sue, 2006) found a noose hanging on her office door at Columbia’s psychology department (ABC News, 2007; Teachers College, Columbia University, 2007a). Within two weeks, the Jewish female clinical psychology chair and Holocaust scholar found a swastika painted on her office door (Teachers College, Columbia University, 2007b). These cases remained unresolved.

That same year, a costume made up of dreadlocks,[4] prison garb, and dark skin was awarded a prize at a Halloween party given by the presidential nominee for the post of Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS; Meserve, Ahlers, Spellman, & Barrett, 2007; The Racism and Social Injustice Audit Committee, 2007b). The costume was considered to be the stereotypical portrait of an African American male.

[1] The longest closure to take place on Wall Street since the Great Depression.

[2] Or walking or shopping.

[3] The founding father of scientific racism.

[4] Matted locks of hair.